Sarasota: West is best on a Florida state visit

Sarasota is where Americans – particularly rich ones – are choosing to live

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The Independent Travel

Most of the million or so British tourists who visit Florida each year go for the glitz of Miami or the theme parks of Orlando – and there's nothing wrong with that. But a discerning minority are now choosing to go to the Gulf of Mexico instead; the "left-hand side" of the state's peninsula. And the jewel of the Gulf Coast – Florida's cultural capital – is Sarasota.

Sarasota is one of the fastest-growing cities in the fastest-growing US state; Florida is about to pass to New York to become the third-most populous state after California and Texas. We think of Florida as a holiday destination, but it is much more than that. Sarasota in particular is not really a tourist centre; it is where Americans – particularly rich ones – are choosing to live.

That gives it a grown-up feeling. There is an opera house. There is a theatre – a real centre for the performing arts, not a cinema. There is an annual film festival in April. There are botanical gardens. There is John Ringling's faux Venetian mansion, a Gatsby-like celebration of the circus-owner's wealth. Crucially, there is none of the tourist tat – even on what is regularly ranked as one of the top beaches in the US, where the restaurants and bars cater for locals they would like to come back, rather than visitors they will never see again.

The beach in question is at Siesta Key, a long sandbar of an island linked by bridges, a few minutes' drive south of the city. It is huge, about eight miles long in total, and a couple of hundred yards in places; even on a holiday weekend when we visited, there was still space. It is safe in that there are no strong currents and it shelves gently; there are of course lifeguards too. But the thing people rave about most is the pure white sand, fine like caster sugar, reflecting the sun, and cool under your feet. Turtles like it too – they nest there, but you are expected to leave them alone.

As for the water, that was swimming pool temperature, even in May. You could stay in all day – that is, if you didn't rent a boat and go fishing instead. In the sea you are joined by manatees plodding up the coast, and by pterodactyl-like pelicans that cruise just over the water catching their supper.

You eat seafood too, of course, for it is hard to beat fresh fish simply cooked, and there are restaurants where you can arrive by boat and tie up at their jetty. Accommodation? We were the guests of friends, who have a bungalow a hundred yards from the beach, so we were much blessed. All the big chains have hotels in Sarasota but I suspect summer rentals are a good idea, given that many Americans have second homes they only use in winter. And getting there? Sarasota has an airport, but you have to connect. However, BA flies daily non-stop from Gatwick to Tampa, an hour-an-a-half's drive north, with the bonus that Tampa airport must be one of the cleanest and most welcoming of any of the gateways to the US.

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